A lineage in Buddhism is a record of teachers and their disciples, or students. Several branches of Buddhism, including Zen and Tibetan Buddhism maintain records of their historical teachers who, according to the traditional history of that school, have passed the Dharma, or Buddhist teachings, from generation to generation in an unbroken line since the time of the Buddha. This vertical line is a lineage of spiritual ancestors, in Zen also called patriarchs, which provides validation of the teachings. In Zen, the experience of satori is also confirmed by the lineages so that the teachers of the present generation are known to have authentic understanding of the Dharma. In the Zen lineage an example is that Bodhidharma is considered the first Zen (Ch'an) patriarch, and the twenty-eighth successor to Gautama Buddha.
The idea of lineage also occurs in other aspects of Buddhism. For example, the requirements for ordination as a bhikkhu include the presence of at least five other bhikkhus, one of whom must be a fully-ordained preceptor, and another an acharya (teacher). Thus a monastic lineage is established reaching back to the Buddha. Vajrayana Buddhism also lays great importance on the continuity of a teaching lineage. Therevada uses the term sangharaja for patriarchs. In Jodo Shinshu the term patriarch refers to seven Indian, Chinese and Japanese masters before its founder Shinran. The act of passing the Dharma to a new teacher and thereby extending lineage is referred to as dharma transmission.
Wallace, et al. (Chagmé et al., 1998: p. 22) render into English a citation of Chagmé (Wylie: karma-chags-med, fl. 17th century) that contains an embedded quotation attributed to Nāropā (956-1041 CE), thus:
The crucial, primary qualification of a spiritual mentor is stated by Naropa, "The qualification of a spiritual mentor is that [t]he[y] possesses the lineage." The Single Meaning of the Vajra Speech [Wylie: rDo rje'i gsungs dgongs pa gcig pa] states, "There is great profundity in the connection within the lineage of the holy Dharma." The real lineage of the realization of this Dharma, which transfer blessings, is the unbroken rosary of Buddhas...".
Preservation of lineages
Gyatrul (b.1924), in a purport to Chagmé (Wylie: karma-chags-med, fl. 17th century), conveys Khyentse's 'samaya' (Sanskrit), diligence and humility in receiving 'wang' (Tibetan), lineal transmission and 'rlung' (Wylie) as rendered into English by Wallace (Chagmé et al., 1998: p. 21):
With respect to oral transmission, even if the lineage is impure, it is not a problem. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche often sought out and received any oral transmission he thought was on the verge of disappearing. It made no difference who was giving it. He would receive it and, in turn, pass it on to make sure that the lineage remained unbroken.
Some of the links in the Chan/Zen transmission-chain have been seriously challenged by historians such as Philip Yampolsky. In particular, there is little or no other evidence linking any of the Indian teachers before Bodhidharma to the Zen sect specifically. Even so, the concept of lineage remains useful. Even if a lineage cannot verifiably be linked all the way back to the time of the Buddha, at least having several generations of undeniably unbroken Dharma transmission provides some validation of the consistency of the experience and teaching that is transmitted along that line.
For the Chan and Zen traditions the first Patriarch in the lineage after the Buddha was Mahakasyapa. Thereafter there were another 26 ancestors in India before Bodhidharma travelled to the East to carry the Dharma to China in the 5th century CE.
Six generations later Huineng was the famous 6th Chinese Patriarch (33rd in line from the Buddha) in the 7th century CE. As Chan subsequently flourished in China there were many branches in the lineage, some of which later died out and some of which continue unbroken to the present day.
Some of these lines were transmitted to Japan, establishing the Zen tradition. Perhaps the most famous of these transmissions to Japan was that of Dogen who travelled to China for Chan training in the 13th century CE, and after receiving Dharma transmission in the Caodong line he returned to Japan and established the Soto line. The Linji line was also transmitted to Japan where it became known as the Rinzai line.
Transmission of Ch'an to the Nyingmapa
Chinese Ch'an Buddhism was introduced during the Eighth Century to the Nyingmapa or 'Ancient School' of Tibetan Buddhism in three principal streams of teachings. The lineages concerned were: Master Kim, Kim Ho-shang, (Chin ho shang) 金和尚 transmitted by Sang Shi who later became an abbot of Samye Monastery in c750 CE; the lineage of Master Wu Chu, 無住 of the Pao T'ang School was transmitted within Tibet by Ye shes dbang po; and the teachings from Mo Ho Yen, 和尚摩訶衍 (Tibetan: Hwa shang Mahayana) that were a synthesis of the Northern School of Ch'an and the Pao T'ang School.
The Tibetan Dharma King Trisong Detsen (Tibetan:Khri srong lde btsan) hosted a famous two-year dharma debate from 792-794CE, known in Western scholarship as the "Council of Lhasa" (although it took place at Samye) outside the capital. As part of this debate Trisong Detsen invited the Ch'an master Mo-ho-yen (whose name consists of the same Chinese characters used to transliterate "Mahayana") to debate with Kamalshila. Mo-ho-yen had been disseminating Dharma in the Tun-huang locale at the time. Moheyan lost the important philosophical debate on the nature of emptiness to the Indian master Kamalashila, and the king declared that Kamalashila's philosophy should form the basis for Tibetan Buddhism. As a result, the Mahayana tradition of Tibetan Buddhism has primarily been founded on the madhyamaka philosophy introduced by Kamalashila from India. In Tibet this is generally combined with the Vajrayana practice path introduced by Padmasambhava, also during the Eighth Century.
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There is a morality tale, allegory and teaching story inherent within the transmission of Chöd to Tibet. Chöd is a fruit of the entwined transmissions of both Indian and Chinese Dharma into the Himalaya. For simplicity, the Indian tantric transmission may be characterised as "gradual" and the Chinese Ch'an transmission may be characterised as "direct". It needs to be emphasized that this neat dichotomy in characterization of these two approaches to the Dharma is only valid for the historical context of the great debate between Kamalashila and Mo Ho Yen, arranged by Trisong Detsen.
Kamalashila, a mahapandita and scholar advocated the "gradual" process to enlightenment; whereas, Mo Ho Yen, as a trance and meditation master advocated the "direct" awakening of original mind through the nirodha or cessation of discursive thought, the mind of ideation. Kamalashila was very handsome and a great orator and historically "won" the debate. Though it cannot be conclusively ascertained as to whether or not Kamalashila was vain, it is pointed that directly after this debate with Mo Ho Yen, as he was making his way down from the Himalaya to the Indian lowlands, he was induced to resort to phowa on compassionate grounds, transferring his mindstream into a truly dead corpse polluted with contagion. Thereby in compassion, animating the corpse, he moved it to a safe location - as nobody wished to move the dangerous corpse in fear of disease.
As the mindstream of Kamalashila was otherwise engaged, a Mahasidda by the name of Padampa Sangye came across the vacant kuten or "physical basis" of Kamalashila. Padampa Sangye, was not karmically blessed with an aesthetic corporeal form, and upon finding the very handsome and healthy empty body of Kamalashila, which he perceived as a newly dead fresh corpse, transferred his mindstream into Kamalashila's body. Padampa Sangye's mindstream in Kamalashila's body continued the ascent to the Himalaya and thereby transmitted the Chöd. The mindstream of Kamalashila upon endeavouring to return to his kuten was unable to do so and resorted by necessity to the vacant body of Padampa Sangye. The mindstream of Padampa Sangye continued in this body, and it is in this body that the transmission of Chod was made to Machig Labdrön.
- 'Blessing' (Wylie: byin-rlabs; Sanskrit: adhiṣṭhāna):
- "In the Buddhist context, the term blessing should not be understood in terms of grace as in the case of theistic religions. Rather, it relates to the sense of inspiration received...which transforms or awakens the potentials inherent within an individual's mental continuum. Thus, the Tibetan word byin-rlabs is interpreted to mean: 'to be transformed through inspiring magnificence'."
- Chagmé, Karma (author, compiler); Gyatrul Rinpoche (commentary) & Wallace, B. Alan (translator) (1998). A Spacious Path to Freedom: Practical Instructions on the Union of Mahamudra and Atiyoga. Ithaca, New York, USA: Snow Lion Publications. ISBN 9781559390712; ISBN 1559390719, p.22
- Source:  (accessed: Wednesday March 25, 2009)
- Chagmé, Karma (author, compiler); Gyatrul Rinpoche (commentary) & Wallace, B. Alan (translator) (1998). A Spacious Path to Freedom: Practical Instructions on the Union of Mahamudra and Atiyoga. Ithaca, New York, USA: Snow Lion Publications. ISBN 9781559390712; ISBN 1559390719, p.21
- Barber, A. W.(1990). The Unifying of Rdzogs Pa Chen Po and Ch'an. Chung-Hwa Buddhist Journal. Vol.3, 04.1990. PP.301-317. Source:  (accessed: October 20, 2007).
- Council of Lhasa A Dictionary of Buddhism
- Yamaguchi, Zuihō (undated). The Core Elements of Indian Buddhism Introduced into Tibet: A Contrast with Japanese Buddhism. Source:  (accessed: October 20, 2007)
- Thrangu, Khenchen & Klonk, Christoph (translator) & Hollmann, Gaby (editor and annotator)(2006). Chod – The Introduction & A Few Practices. Source:  (accessed: November 2, 2007)
- Source:  (Thursday, November 5, 2007)
- The Lineages and History of Buddhism
- Chö/Chöd/Lineages associated with Machig Labdrön
- Schools of Zen Buddhism at the Zen Buddhism WWW Virtual Library
- Zen Ancestors in China - The Five Houses
- Caodong and Linji lineage chart of present-day Chan Master Sheng-yen